Penguin Books, Auckland, 2004
- ‘It’s a social as well as a military history, and a fascinating one too. Snappily written, well-researched and witty, it is also beautifully illustrated…’ Deborah Challinor in Waikato Times, 8 May 2004.
‘One of the things which immediately strikes the reader of these [books being reviewed] and other previous books of the ilk, is the emphasis they put on human experience… The question being asked is not; what was the war like or about? It is instead; what did it meant to be a New Zealander and at war?
They cover a broad gamut: the Italian campaign from the point of view of those who saw it first hand; the western desert from the viewpoint of a highly specialised but highly successful railway construction and transport unit; a general oversight history as already noted; and accounts of the personal family experience and the experience of women in the WAAF at war.
One of their paradoxes is that they are as much books about the New Zealand we have lost as they are about war in the strict sense. The New Zealand they describe is now as remote to those New Zealanders who had their first vote in 1984 as the craters on the nether side of the moon. That it is a society for whose passing we need not necessarily feel regret is dramatised for me by two anecdotes which stuck in my mind as I read…
…I found the recounted experience of the WAAF June Gummer even more fascinating. June, very unusually for the time and place, had qualified as a pilot pre-war. She joined up shortly after the war commenced and eventually applied for a posting in Britain as a ferry pilot ie one of those who did not take part in aerial combat but who carried out the crucial task of flying aircraft to points of delivery, a highly skilled job which required familiarity with a wide range of planes. She was ultimately accepted and in the event performed with a high degree of merit. Bear in mind, however, that this was a time when skilled pilots were at an absolute premium, and that the Battle of Britain had almost been lost for lack of them. When June initiated her application she was told that she could come and try out if she paid her own fare to Britain. This, to me, is an extraordinary dramatisation of the way in which women were regarded as less than full citizens in New Zealand, a situation by no means improved by the war, notwithstanding the key roles many women played in the course to victory. Afterwards they were ignominiously bundled back to the kitchen for the sake of ensuring jobs for the “returned” men.’
Tony Simpson in New Zealand Books Quarterly Review, 1 March 2004.